The debate concerning the authenticity of Beinecke MS 350A – AKA the Vinland Map – has raged for over half a century. Is it for real or is it early modern Maybelline?

Vinland Map Ink

Despite the numerous technical analyses that have been carried out on the Vinland Map, almost the only fact everyone agrees on is the physical age of its paper: it has been carbon dated to the first half of the 15th century, which is nicely consistent with its Briquet Tete de Boeuf (15056) watermark.

That’s the support medium – but what about the rest? The major thing pointing towards inauthenticity elsewhere is (courtesy of Walter McCrone) the analytical demonstration that the ink used in the Vinland Map is not a conventional iron gall ink, but appears to contain a particular form of anatase (titanium oxide) that was first chemically synthesized only in the 1920s. And so, McCrone’s base argument from 1974 runs, it doesn’t matter how old the paper itself is, because the ink on top of it simply cannot be genuinely fifteenth century.

Even so, people continue to try to defend the Vinland Map’s authenticity, by suggesting ingenious mechanisms by which the anatase might have been deposited in the 20th Century: Jim Enterline, for example, plausibly proposed in 2002 that anatase might somehow have been added to a genuinely old map as part of an attempt to clean it.

But when McCrone looked again at the map in 1991, he extended his claim somewhat further into the construction details. Specifically, he claimed that the lines that made up the map were – to make them more closely resemble old iron gall ink, but without actually being old iron gall ink – drawn in two distinct passes:
(1) a first yellow ink pass using a slightly wider nib
(2) a second dark ink pass in a narrower nib, immediately on top of (and steered down the middle of) the lines put down in the first pass.
If this is correct, the Vinland Map is not just a mere fake: rather, it is a painstakingly-executed two-pass modern simulacrum of an old manuscript.

The ‘smokingest’ smoking gun in all of this would seem to have been discovered by Kenneth M. Towe: when he examined the Vinland Map at the Beinecke, he noticed that the two lines diverged significantly in the English west coast.


Now, I’ve personally never seen a colour close-up of this specific section to test out Towe’s argument with my own eyes, but I’d really like to. Has anyone got a copy of this?


Even so, the twin issues of who it was that constructed such a thing and for what reason both remain resolutely unresolved. Kirsten Seaver’s 2004 book “Maps, Myths, and Men” tried to pin the tail on a peculiarly unsatifying Jesuit cartomanic donkey, Father Josef Fischer. However, her account failed to convince me that Fischer would have wanted to create a fake Vinland Map of the kind we see for any reason, let alone for the reasons that Seaver speculatively proposes.

So even if the Vinland Map does prove to be a fake (and the presence of modern anatase and the apparent two-pass drawing when taken together do make it seem so), we still have no idea by whom it was made, or where, or indeed when (other than post-1920 or so).

Seaver is convinced she has got the right man; but her argument only really presents a possible candidate, and doesn’t go as far as actually explaining much of what we see or what happened. Perhaps she will uncover something more substantial soon, at which point we’ll all have to revise our views: we shall see.

A Surprise Entrant

In 2013, the modern history of the Vinland Map took an unexpected turn when an amateur Scottish historian called John Paul Floyd announced (courtesy of the Daily Mail, The Sunday Times and doubtless elsewhere) that he had uncovered – thanks to Google searches – an entirely new angle on it.

Floyd believes that the document the Vinland Map appears to have been bound with – The Tartar Relation – was put on display in Madrid in 1892 at an exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ Atlantic crossing. And at that time there was no map bound with it (because the page count listed at the time would be wrong). He also found a reference to the same manuscript from 1926 when it was examined by Cristóbal Pérez Pastor (also no mention of a map at all).

Manuscripts for the 1892 exhibition were loaned from the collection of the Cathedral Church of Zaragoza, the contents of which were ransacked in the early 1950s and fenced through crooked book dealers such as Enzo Ferrajoli (who was convicted for this).

And Enzo Ferrajoli was the same rare book dealer who ultimately first sold the Vinland Map in 1957. Ouch!

It’s a pretty compelling chain or reasoning, because for once it offers actual evidence of absence 🙂 rather than speculatory absence of evidence. Of course, it doesn’t yet answer the question of who faked the map or why: but perhaps Floyd (who has been hard at work grinding out his book ever since) has found some additional evidence there too. We shall see, hopefully this year.

Nicely, I found a post on soc.history.medieval by David B that foregrounds Floyd’s evidence:-

The 1892-3 Madrid Exhibition Catalogue

“Catalogo General” of the 1892-3 Exposición Historico-Europea.
Room X:
“53. – Vincentius bellvacensis. Speculum naturale, doctrinale, morale, historiale.
El presente volumen contiene, de esta célebre enciclopedia de Vicente de Beauvais, solamente los libros 21 á 24 de la tercera parte del Speculum historiale.
Al fin se ha añadido un tratadito intitulado Historia Tartarorum dedicado por el autor Fr. C. de Bridia, al R.P. Fr. Bogardio, ministro de los franciscanos en Boemia y Polonia.
Manuscrito, á dos columnas, letra del siglo xv, las cubiertas de cada cuaderno en vitela y lo demás en papel, los epigrafes en tinta roja, el lugar de las iniciales en blanco. Consta de 251 hojas.
La Historia Tartarorum, acaba de esta manera: actum ab incarnatione domini MCCXLVII, tertio kalendas augusti.
Folio, encuadernado en tabla forrada de cuero labrado.”

About which David B comments:

Note that the above gives the number of leaves as 251, which would be almost the same as the total number of leaves with writing on in the two now-separated texts at Yale. It’s one leaf too few if you include the Vinland Map in the current count, but one leaf too many if you exclude the Map, suggesting that the now-missing first written leaf of book 21 of the “Speculum” may have been present in 1892.

Cristóbal Pérez Pastor

“Noticias y Documentos relativos a la Historia y Literatura Espanolas recogidos por D. C. Perez Pastor”:

“Speculum historiae (segunda y tercera parte). Historia tartarum.
Manuscrito, letra del siglo xv, a dos columnas, los epigrafes en tinta roja; cada cuaderno tiene la primera y última hojas en pergamino y las deniz en papel.
Al final lleva la fecha: “Actum ab incarnatione Domim M.CC.XL.VII. tertio Kalendas Augusti”; folio, encuadernado en tabla forrada de piel, con adornos de la época.
Del Speculum hist contiene los libros xxj a xxiv, que dan remate a la parte tercera de la obra.
El Codice comienza con el imperio de Teodosio el joven, y acaba en el segundo reinado de la Emperatriz Irene.
Sigue la Historia de los Tartaros, escrita por Fray C. de Bridia, fransiscano, y va dirigida a Fray Bogixdao, ministro de los franciscanos en Bohemia y Polonia, y se termina con la fecha del 30 de Julio de 1247.”

Edith Sherwood very kindly left an interesting comment on my “Voynich Manuscript – the State of Play” post, which I thought was far too good to leave dangling in a mere margin. She wrote:-

If you read the 14C dating of the Vinland Map by the U of Arizona, you will find that they calculate the SD of individual results from the scatter of separate runs from that average, or from the counting statistical error, which ever was larger. They report their Average fraction of modern F value together with a SD for each measurement:

  • 0.9588 ± 0.014
  • 0.9507 ± 0.0035
  • 0.9353 ± 0.006
  • 0.9412 ± 0.003
  • 0.9310 ± 0.008

F (weighted average) = 0.9434 ± 0.0033, or a 2SD range of 0.9368 – 0.9500

Radiocarbon age = 467 ± 27 BP.

You will note that 4 of the 5 F values that were used to compute the mean, from which the final age of the parchment was calculated, lie outside this 2SD range!

The U of A states: The error is a standard deviation deduced from the scatter of the five individual measurements from their mean value.

According to the Wikipedia radiocarbon article:
‘Radiocarbon dating laboratories generally report an uncertainty for each date. Traditionally this included only the statistical counting uncertainty. However, some laboratories supplied an “error multiplier” that could be multiplied by the uncertainty to account for other sources of error in the measuring process.’

The U of A quotes this Wikipedia article on their web site.

It appears that the U of Arizona used only the statistical counting error to computing the SD for the Vinland Map. They may have treated their measurements on the Voynich Manuscript the same way. As their SD represents only their counting error and not the overall error associated with the totality of the data, a realistic SD could be substantially larger.

A SD for the Vinland map that is a reasonable fit to all their data is:

F (weighted average) = 0.9434 ± 0.011 ( the SD computed from the 5 F values).

Or a radiocarbon age = 467 ± 90 BP instead of 467 ± 27 BP.

I appreciate that the U of A adjust their errors in processing the samples from their 13C/12C measurements, but this approach does not appear to be adequate. It would be nice if they had supplied their results with an “error multiplier”. They are performing a complex series of operations on minute samples that may be easily contaminated.

I suggest that this modified interpretation of the U of A’s results for the Vinland Map be confirmed because a similar analysis for the Voynich Manuscript might yield a SD significantly larger than they quote. I would also suggest that your bloggers read the results obtained for 14C dating by the U of A for samples of parchment of known age from Florence. These results are given at the very end of their article, after the references. You and your bloggers should have something concrete to discuss.

So… what do I think?

The reason that this is provocative is that if Edith’s statistical reasoning is right, then there would a substantial widening of the date range, far more (because of the turbulence in the calibration curve’s coverage of the late fifteenth century and sixteenth century) than merely the (90/27) = 3.3333x widening suggested by the numbers.

All the same, I’d say that what the U of A researchers did with the Vinland Map wasn’t so much statistical sampling (for which the errors would indeed accumulate if not actually multiply) but cross-procedural calibration – by which I mean they experimentally tried out different treatment/processing regimes on what was essentially the same sample. That is, they seem to have been using the test as a means not only to date the Vinland Map but also as an opportunity to validate that their own brand of processing and radiocarbon dating could ever be a pragmatically useful means to date similar objects.

However, pretty much as Edith points out with their calibrating-the-calibration appendix, the central problem with relying solely on radiocarbon results to date any one-off object remains: that it is subject to contamination or systematic uncertainties which may (as in Table 2’s sample #4) move it far out of the proposed date ranges, even when it falls (as the VM and the VMs apparently do) in one of the less wiggly ranges on the calibration curve. Had the Vinland Map actually been made 50 years later, it would have been a particularly problematic poster (session) child: luckily for them, though, the pin landed in a spot not too far from the date suggested by the history.

By comparison, the Voynich Manuscript presents a quite different sampling challenge. Its four samples were taken from a document which (a) was probably written in several phases over a period of time (as implied by the subtle evolution in the handwriting and cipher system), and (b) subsequently had its bifolios reordered, whether deliberately by the author (as Glen Claston believes) or  by someone unable to make sense of it (as I believe). This provides an historical superstructure within which the statistical reasoning would need to be performed: even though Rene Zandbergen tends to disagree with me over this, my position is that unless you have demonstrably special sampling circumstances, the statistical reasoning involved in radiocarbon dating is not independent of the historical reasoning… the two logical structures interact. I’m a logician by training (many years ago), so I try to stay alert to the limits of any given logical system – and I think dating the VMs sits astride that fuzzy edge.

For the Vinland Map, I suspect that the real answer lies inbetween the two: that while 467 ± 27 BP may well be slightly too optimistic (relative to the amount of experience the U of A had with this kind of test at that time), 467 ± 90 BP is probably far too pessimistic – they used multiple processes specifically to try to reduce the overall error, not to increase it. For the Voynich Manuscript, though, I really can’t say: a lot of radiocarbon has flowed under their bridge since the Vinland Map test was carried out, so the U of A’s processual expertise has doubtless increased significantly – yet I suspect it isn’t as straightforward a sampling problem as some might think. We shall see (hopefully soon!)… =:-o

I was sitting on a train trying to reconcile the Voynich Manuscript’s vellum dating (1404-1438) with its art history dating (1450-1470), while also pondering the various layered aspects of its codicology (such as the pictures apparently behind some the water nymphs), when an unexpected thought popped into my head.

Might the VMs have its (erased) plaintext as a palimpsest beneath its ciphertext?

That is, might the Voynich Manuscript be an enciphered copy of the document that was originally written in broadly the same place on the same pages? The overall timeline could work like this:-

  • 1420 or so: the author compiles his/her books of secrets onto brand new vellum.
  • 1460 or so: the author copies each line or paragraph onto a wax tablet, erases the line or paragraph from the vellum, and replaces it with an enciphered version.

If this is correct (and though I admit that the odds are against it, I do think it’s worth considering), the issue would then become whether the original plaintext might somehow be made legible again – that is, whether the plaintext’s ink made a sufficiently permanent contact with the vellum that some kind of imaging might now reveal it, even if it was heavily erased at the time.

Over on the MapHist mailing list in recent days, there has been a lot of ink-related discussion about the Vinland Map (which has its own curious cryptographic angle that Jim Enterline has been doggedly pursuing for years): this interesting analytical paper on vellums and inks was cited, as well as “Ink Corrosion” by Gerhard Banik. This latter paper discusses Haerting’s “conclusion that only inks containing iron(II) salts can cause ink degradation damage. The other components of the ink […] do not cause noticeable damage to the support medium.

At first glance, you’d have to say that the VMs really doesn’t appear to be a classical palimpsest: but this is because palimpsests were typically washed clean and the second layer of writing put down at right angles to the original direction of the text.

But perhaps some of the original ink layer wasn’t erased, in forms other than that of almost imperceptible damage to the support material: I’m thinking in particular of the “hidden house” on f77v that I discussed here back in June 2009.


I’m pretty sure that this originally depicted some kind of house structure (drawn in faint, straight lines), but that the “water nymph” and the “wolkenbanden” were subsequently added in a later pass (in a completely different ink) to mislead the eye.

Codicologically, what is most interesting here is that the original ink (i.e. from the “house”) might be identified and separated out into its own layer… and that understanding its particular composition (and the way that it interacts with the support material) might point to a way of imaging the manuscript’s original (1420?) ink layers from beneath the subsequent (1460?) ink layers (if it exists, of course).

Basicaly, why even try to break the cipher, if it might be possible just to read it? Now wouldn’t that be a surprise for everyone!

It’s been an interesting day: Edith Sherwood’s Voynich website got Slashdotted – given that Cipher Mysteries picked up 4900 visitors from that tsunami of geeky clicks, itself must have had (say) 30000 or more.

And then (just now), ORF released a teaser press release for next week’s “DAS VOYNICH-RÄTSEL” documentary to their (German-language) website. So, the real big news of the day is that the Austrian film-makers are certain that the VMS is even older than previously thought (though they don’t say by how much, or in comparison to which theory). The page says that they also took a number of ink and paint samples for analysis, and examined a number of key sections under UV light for erasures / emendations (all of which is good, exactly the kind of thing I hoped they’d do).

And here’s a site which is even more specific as to the date range and place revealed by the documentary: that it was made between 1404 and 1438 (in the “flat” part of the radiocarbon dating curve, hence the tight range), and in Northern Italy (probably or certainly?). Prepare yourself for the massed onslaught of Voynich doubters to disagree…

So, might the VMs actually turn out to be by Cicco Simonetta in his early days in the Sforza roving Chancellery? Marcello Simonetta would be pleased, but it’s still early days (I thought I’d be the first to mention it)…

PS: is it just me, or can anyone else still hear Steve Ekwall saying “It’S oLdEr ThAn YoU tHiNk“?

UPDATE: see the follow-up post “Voynich Manuscript – the state of play” for more on the Austrian documentary

Two up-to-the-minute papers on the Vinland Map (the Beinecke’s other “VM”) for your delectation and delight.

Firstly, a 2008 paper by Garman Harbottle called “The Vinland Map: a critical review of archaeometric research on its authenticity” in Archaeometry, 50, pp.177-89 – this tries to discredit / undermine the analytical & spectroscopic chemical analyses of the Vinland Map by McCrone (1974) and Clark (2004).

And secondly, a late-2008 paper by Kenneth Towe, Robin Clark and Kirsten Seaver that seeks to vigorously rebut Harbottle’s rebuttal (and, indeed, appears to succeed).

Much as I would like the tricky fragments of cipher on the Vinland Map (as best described by James Enterline) to be a genuine piece of late medieval cryptography (after all, this is a cipher history blog), and even though I suspect Towe, Clark and Seaver might have overreacted somewhat to Harbottle’s paper, the science currently does seem to be more on their side than on his. Hmmm… I really ought to review Kirsten Seaver’s (2004) book “Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vínland Map” (where she names her suspect as Joseph Fischer, though her argument has been criticized for lack of evidence) here soon… so much to read, so little time. Oh well! 🙁

For a recently updated (and generally very comprehensive) online discussion of the Vinland Map, I heartily recommend J. Huston McCulloch’s Vinland Map webpage.

I recently stumbled across a forum discussion comparing the Voynich Manuscript to the “Maybrick Diary” (oh, and the Vinland Map, too) inasmuch as they are all high profile documents that have been dubbed fakes or hoaxes. James Maybrick was a Victorian cotton merchant from Liverpool high up the ludicrously long list of people variously accused of being Jack the Ripper, as well as the alleged author of a Ripperesque diary that surfaced in 1992.

It seems that just about everybody (apart from Robert Smith, the present owner) is reasonably sure that the Maybrick Diary (written in a Victorian diary with the first 20 pages ripped out) is a fake: Michael Barrett, who originally claimed to have bought it in a pub, later swore (twice) that he had dictated the diary to his wife, though these affadavits were (apparently) subsequently repudiated.

To me, the Maybrick Diary fits the general template of hoaxers falling out after the event, guiltily unable to keep up the pretence, not unlike the mad furore over the fake alien autopsy I described a while back. In pattern-speak, one might observe that a Beneficiary (Michael Barrett / Ray Santilli) benefits from the appearance of a MacGuffin (the Maybrick Diary / alien autopsy footage) claiming to unravel a notorious unexplained Mystery (Jack the Ripper / Roswell), but couldn’t quite keep up the pretense for a long time.

Compare that with the Vinland Map, and you can see why historians like Kirsten Seaver go looking for that person who benefitted from its appearance: for without a Beneficiary, you haven’t really got a hoax. Seaver proposed that the VM was forged by an Austrian called Josef Fischer (1858-1944) after about 1923, for a rather tortuous (dare I say Jesuitical?) reason involving teasing unknown Nazi scholars. However, introducing Nazis (particularly without any actual evidence) is normally a sign that you’ve lost the argument: so it’s easy to understand why Seaver’s otherwise intensely detailed research has failed to please. What everyone does now agree is that it is an astonishingly clever object, whichever century (or centuries) it was from.

And what of the Voynich Manuscript? While some unknown person did benefit (to the tune of 600 ducats) from its first half-documented appearance in Prague, you’d have to imagine really hard (to the point of hallucination) that they actually created it as well – the VMs has a complex, multi-layered codicology that speaks of a busy 15th century existence in the hands of multiple owners, a whole century before Rudolf II’s collecting heyday. Oh, and the other problem with seeing the VMs as a hoax is that it is doesn’t claim to unravel a Mystery – it is itself the Mystery. Unless you can imagine something even more mysterious?